Jack is a senior in Houston, Texas. He attends a public magnet high school.
The past two months I’ve begun with the facts and then moved on to the feelings. Let’s do it the other way around this time. How are you doing? When we last talked, you were feeling stressed. Is that any better? Worse? What’s going on in your emotions right now as they relate to school and college applications?
The stress was mounting as my first deadline for Yale was looming closer, but it was still manageable. I made the mistake of chugging through my supplements & essay up to the last minute (I’ve never been very good at setting personal deadlines) so I have some residual stress and some regret because of that poor pacing. But I still feel greatly relieved that it’s submitted and done with, and I was overall really happy with all my responses. I think I’m gonna have considerably less stress with the remainder of the college process because I think the bulk of the stress was coming from finishing the Common App essay, which I got done in time for the Yale app. The Yale app was also one of the meatier apps to complete with a heck-ton of supplements, so getting that done was a huge load off my plate.
You go to a college prep magnet school, so virtually all the seniors at your school are in the same situation you are. What’s the mood of the 12th grade like? How do you think you compare to your peers when it comes to coping with applications?
I’m not exactly sure what the mood is because I feel like the college-bound mindset isn’t as exhibited so outwardly as a high school culture. I think we’re all just in our own worlds going about college stuff like it’s just homework from a class (though maybe I’m just out of touch with how everyone else is feeling). I do get the sense that everyone’s still a little confused about the whole process though, just because the “college process” has so many parts to it that you have to stay on top of--different deadlines, different requirements, scholarships, financial aid, things of that nature. I think I feel a bit more comfortable with the process and have a clearer direction of what I’m supposed to be doing because of the support I get from EMERGE and my awesome EMERGE counselor.
What kind of support or help are you getting with your applications, either at school or elsewhere?
I’ve had a lot of awesome & dedicated support from my EMERGE counselor, and I’ve also been to our campus college counselor a few times to review my essay. I also go to a couple of my teachers whenever I need a professional second opinion.
Did you apply to Brown ED-1 or Yale restrictive ED? Does that mean that you won’t be applying to any more schools until you hear back from them?
Ultimately, I decided to apply REA for Yale because I felt like there was more of a guarantee that I would like going to that school if I get accepted since I’ve visited before. Since it’s restrictive, meaning I can’t apply EA to any other schools, I won’t have any applications due until December, but I’m definitely going to keep working on them regardless, especially because Yale is such a massive reach.
How’s your progress on FAFSA?
Done! Now I’m trying to get CSS done within this week!
How did your Oxy interview go? What about your Tufts fly-in? Have you had any other interviews? If so, how did they go? If not, do you have any more scheduled?
My Oxy interview went really well! It was my first interview, so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but the conversation flowed really naturally and I enjoyed talking about stuff I get excited about. All the other interviews I can do can only be scheduled until after I submit applications to that school. My Tufts fly-in also went really well! That was also my first fly-in so I don’t have anything to compare that to either. It was an awesome school, but the campus was really white, especially coming from Houston. It was the first time in a while where I’ve been in a really white-dominated space, so it was a bit disorienting and an eye-opener. There are still a lot of aspects of Tufts that I appreciate that are still going to lead me to apply though, but diversity has always been important to me, so this experience helps give me a perspective to ground myself in when considering colleges.
Your application list as it stood a month ago was:
Occidental (top choice)
U of Houston
Wash. U in St. Louis
UT San Antonio
Do you have any changes to that?
I’m still on the fence about Reed because, while I absolutely love everything else about it, and while Reed seems to be one of the more relatively diverse institutions, Portland is a really white community, and one of the things I love about Houston is its diversity. (The same situation goes with Skidmore at Saratoga Springs, but their application is so simple that I can just knock it off real quick and postpone thinking about it until later in the process.) I’m also on the fence about adding USC and Pomona College--both schools that have been on my list at one point--because, while there are a lot of aspects about these schools that I really like, there are also aspects that I dislike that I’m not sure how to articulate. They’re also slight reaches, and I feel like I have enough reaches on my list.
At around 16 schools, your list is slightly on the long side. What’s behind that strategy? Do you have a plan for how to decide between all your acceptances?
I didn’t really have any plans to limit myself. It just so happens that I can see myself being happy at any of these 16 schools; if I could see myself attending only six of these schools then I would only apply to six schools. My plan is to just go through the list one by one in order of the deadline and relative desire for me to go to one school over another while also making sure to vary the order with reaches, matches, and safeties. So I’ll probably knock off Skidmore, Wesleyan, WashU, and Trinity U, since these are all schools that don’t have any supplements, then I’d only have to worry about the other 12 schools. If I end up reconsidering some schools, I can just add and remove schools from my list whenever that happens.
Have you done anything else college related this month? Is there anything I didn’t ask you want to talk about?
I just got through my CSS Profile and followed up on a fly-in for Oberlin!
Have you submitted any applications yet, either for an October 1 early admissions deadline, or just to send some stuff out early?
Nope! My first deadline is on November 1st, either for Brown (ED I) or for Yale (restrictive EA), and I'm still in the process of re-drafting my personal statement.
FAFSA has just opened up. How soon do you think you'll apply for financial aid? Do you have everything you need to complete that application, or are you still trying to get information?
I'm trying to complete both the FAFSA and the CSS profile before the month of October ends. I was hoping to get the FAFSA done this weekend, but something set that back, so I'm aiming for sometime in the middle of next week. As for the profile, hopefully I can get that done next weekend. I feel like I should have everything I need to at least get the FAFSA done.
Your college list as of last month was:
Occidental (top choice)
University of Houston
Do you have any changes to that?
I discovered that Wesleyan, WASHU St. Louis, Trinity University, and Skidmore don't ask for any supplements, so I'm definitely applying to these schools because, if it's that's easy to apply, then why not? They've all been on my list at one point or another for different reasons, and their financial aid is good enough and can potentially be better than some of my other options, so the potential pay-off exceeds the effort. I ruled out Clark because I felt like the type of curriculum they offer felt too structured / too gimmicky / just not for me. Rice is still a maybe for me because it's mostly on my list because my parents are insisting on my applying. I think after a visit I would know for sure whether or not to keep it on my list. I'm definitely applying to Reed, Yale, USC--and I’m adding UTSA--because they offer me everything I want in a college, which is a flexible curriculum with opportunities to explore the arts, music, and entrepreneurship, a strength in humanities, and a metropolitan-enough setting. I ended up ruling out American University because I don't think I'd like its research-intensive approach to education.
How much money do you plan on spending on college applications?
$0--my financial status allows me to take advantage of fee waivers on the college app fees.
Which of your current list do you consider "safety schools?" How do you go about picking your safeties?
Occidental, Trinity University, U of H, UT Austin (but not Plan II, which I may or may not apply), Skidmore, Trinity University, and UTSA are schools I consider my safeties, mostly based on reported middle SAT score ranges (if I fall beyond the range or sometimes at the high end of the range I consider it to be a safety) and also based on a special metric provided by EMERGE, which is based on GPA and test scores.
Do you have any deadlines, visits, or interviews in October? What's coming up for you?
I have an Oxy interview this Friday after school and then a fly-in for Tufts University. I'm also applying for Oberlin's fly-in in November.
What else, other than college, is going on for you in school? How are your classes? What extra-curriculars are you involved in this semester, and how much time and energy do they take?
I'm only taking four classes (Yearbook, AP Statistics, AP Macroeconomics, and AP English Lit), so I have a lot of free time and a lot less stress than my junior year. The reason I'm only taking these four classes is because I wanted to take part in an internship with the Houston Chronicle, which takes place during the second half of my school day. I'm also a senior editor for our Yearbook & Co-President of our Asian-American Association, both of which consume much of my time and energy, often more than my actual classes. I still find them really rewarding however, especially when I’m able to make more creative decisions and have a greater say in creative direction, or when I’m organizing stimulating events/activities/discussions from start to finish and tangibly seeing those results.
What else, other than school, is going on in your life? What other commitments do you have?
Once a week I work at the Contemporary Arts Museum as part of Teen Council, but other than that, not much. I still take out my dog and help out around the house and such but I thankfully don't have a lot of major responsibilities that take up too much of my time.
How are you feeling about all this? Are you stressed? Are you optimistic? How are you doing?
Stressed! I really need to get going on my Yale application (one of the heavier applications with a load of supplements) because my deadline for the school is coming real soon; my essay still needs to be cut from a thousand words and then revised and revised again; and I haven’t been prioritizing scholarships as well as I should have. Still, I think I'm optimistic enough and I trust myself enough to get everything done and be at an OK spot in time for my first deadline.
Tell me about your school.
My school is a magnet high school specifically for students identified as “Gifted and Talented.” Right now, it has around 650 students, and each incoming class has a quantity of students that’s bound to settle on a number that’s somewhat significantly lower than where it first started--it’s to my understanding that my school purposefully over-enrolls to account for the large number of students who drop out or transfer in later semesters. This school is particularly challenging as most classes are only available at their highest level (for example: I can only take Pre-AP English I rather than “regular” English I), and because it’s easy to feel disoriented as a student who’s used to being “on top” while barely studying (or not studying at all) to get by.
I want to say that almost almost 100% of graduates go on to college. I think that most students go on to attend the local, large public schools, especially the University of Houston, the University of Texas at Austin, and Texas A&M at College Station. There are always a few kids (maybe between 2 and 5?) that go on to very elite and prestigious schools--Columbia, Brown, Stanford, Rice and Yale come to mind. Lastly, there’s a handful that’s scattered around the map attending a variety of institutions from small liberal arts colleges to big, out-of-state public schools.
Is college preparation a big deal in your high school? Do people talk about college a lot? Is it assumed that you will, or even might, go to college?
I think that most students have vague notions of where they should be and what they should be doing as college applicants--there’s not a lot of handholding or any formal or structured form of college guidance until part of senior year--but even so, for many, college is what grounds a lot of the decisions that students make: which classes to take, which clubs to be involved in, what opportunities to take part of, which teachers to get close to, etc. I think that there’s not only an expectation made by the school, but also a generally universal assumption made by my peers, that most if not all of the student population is guaranteed to attend some college after graduating.
How much direct instruction about college applications or choosing a college have you got from your school, either from teachers or from counselors?
Short presentation series are conducted by the school counselors to go over the college process, which includes how to prepare yourself to be a competitive college applicant, how to search for colleges and explore career paths, and how to apply for college. These presentations are given once per year and are customized by grade level. Beyond that, there’s no structured form of reinforcement, except for a required one-on-one session during junior and senior year, and it’s up to the students to do their own research and explore the process.
Can you think of any good advice you've received about college applications from anyone at your school?
I can’t think of any advice specific to college applications, but there’s one piece of advice I value regarding standing out as a competitive college applicant. I think it’s important to genuinely go through high school in a mindset that allows for growth and exploration. While I think it’s okay to allow college to have some influence on your decisions, it might be best for most students to take classes that are genuinely interesting for them and join clubs that are genuinely fulfilling. I think it can get really toxic when students overload on AP courses, or, inversely, take easy 5-point classes in the hopes that it would look especially impressive on college applications, or if students establish clubs that don’t hold a lot of meaning for them in the hopes of looking well-rounded. These strategies could result in incohesive applications with generic responses. I think that genuinely going through high school--committing to certain interests, getting good grades in classes you care about--will not only help stand out in making an application sound more authentic and cohesive, but it can also be a more rewarding and healthy experience for the student.
Are there any colleges that you're sure you'll apply to? Is one of them your "dream school"?
I’m almost definitely sure I’m applying to Occidental College. I really wanted a liberal arts college in a metropolitan area, and Occidental was just perfect. Their financial aid is great, I love LA, and I would genuinely love to be a part of the college community, even if it’s one of my safeties. Brown University, Pitzer College, American University, Tufts University, and Oberlin College are also at the top of my list, but the fact that I haven’t visited any of these institutions is holding me back from being 100% committed to applying; I want to be sure that these schools would actually be good fits for me--what if I don’t like the area or the community? I might plan on applying to these institutions anyway and then visit later through fly-ins that I’d hopefully get into. U of H and UT Austin are also schools where I’m more-or-less committed to apply. These local schools are just less of a hassle to get into and it’s very likely that these would become the most affordable schools for me.
What other colleges are you thinking of applying to?
Rice University, University of Southern California, Wesleyan University, Reed College, Yale University, and Clark University are also on my mind. I’d need to do some more research to see if they’d be a good fit for me. Some things like diversity, community, and location are holding me back from applying to some of these schools.
What colleges have you visited or toured? Did any of them stand out as being especially good or bad?
When I went to California to visit family, I was able to visit Pomona College, Stanford University, and Occidental College. I could only visit a limited number of colleges during our vacation, so these were schools (especially Occidental and Pomona) that I really wanted to see.
Pomona College let me down a little. Their diversity resources could be better, and I wasn’t sure if Claremont was a good place to be for me--it seemed to me like a big bougie bubble.
On the other hand, II fell in love with Occidental. The community seemed really genuine, there seemed to be a considerable emphasis on the humanities which I value greatly, and the campus was just beautiful. They offered two unique majors that I learned about during my visit that really piqued my interest: Media Arts and Culture, and Critical Theory and Social Justice. Learning about those programs helped Occidental really stick in my mind.
Stanford was more-or-less what I expected. It was a beautiful campus that was of course very well-resourced. I kept it off my list just because I already had a lot of reach schools that I thought were better-suited for me, and because Stanford just seemed to be more STEM-oriented, which i wasn’t interested in.
I also toured liberal arts colleges in Massachusetts during the summer before my junior year as part of the EMERGE program (a college-access program for minority, low-income, and first-generation students). I visited Hampshire College, Amherst College, UMASS Amherst, Yale, MIT, and Harvard. While I’ve always liked the concept of a liberal arts college, I learned early on that I could not at all picture myself at a school in the middle of a woods. Yale, MIT, and Harvard were beautiful, and the surrounding areas seemed so cosmopolitan to me. MIT especially struck me as a campus with a really creative and entrepreneurial student body, and I learned that that’s something I wanted to look out for in other colleges during my college research process.
What are the main things you're looking for in a college?
I’m looking for 4-year schools that are diverse, have an emphasis on the humanities, and can also allow my to explore my interests in entrepreneurship, design, the arts, and music. My ideal school has a flexible curriculum and is surrounded by cultural institutions and/or an active arts scene.
Have you talked with your family about money? Do you know how much you can afford to pay per year? Do you know how college will be paid for?
I’ve been asking my dad about our financial situation and what kind of colleges we could afford, and he was able to break down our family budget after I’ve pestered him enough (this was a very long process), so I have some idea of what we can afford. Right now, I’m looking out for colleges with close to 100% need met and am just hoping for the best when I apply; hopefully I can figure out the rest when the financial aid packages come.
How are you feeling about college applications?
I think I feel more assured than a lot of my peers because EMERGE has really helped me with the college process by providing constant guidance and a regular space to dispel any of my concerns and misconceptions. I still feel a little bit anxious because I really need to finish up my essay, pin down who I’m asking for my recommendation letters and how, and apply to more scholarships, but I still feel like I have time and I’m in control for now. I’m just a little worried that I won’t be as proactive as I can be (as has historically been the case for me), but I’m confident that I’ll get everything I need done eventually, and I have comfort in knowing that thousands of other students are going through this same process.
What do you not know about this process that you wish you did? What would you change about the past few years to be more prepared for this?
I wish I formed better relationships with my teachers. It feels awkward to ask for recommendation letters when you feel like you could’ve done more in their class or tried just a bit harder. I wish I just knew how my teachers have perceived me in their class so I know exactly who to ask and how!